Rogero is proof: Non-partisan elections work

Betty BeanKnox Scene

Eight years ago, a bunch of Republicans actively supported Democrat Madeline Rogero for mayor in the city’s non-partisan election. County Mayor Tim Burchett and longtime Tennessee Conservative Union chair Lloyd Daugherty both endorsed Rogero and Burchett fist bumped his way through Rogero’s primary and general election night victory celebrations.

But it was former Knox County GOP chairs Chad Tindell and Billy Stokes and business leader Eddie Mannis who did the heavy lifting.

Rogero welcomed the Republican support, which blunted the effect of an underground hate campaign that attempted to paint her as a business-hating socialist. The fact that Mayor Bill Haslam had hired her to be his community development director three years after the two had locked horns in a hard-fought mayoral race in 2003 didn’t hurt her cause.

Tindell, Stokes and Mannis got some blowback, mostly in the form of that ancient staple in Knoxville politics – an old-time smear letter branding Stokes and Tindell “fat former party chairs” and Mannis a “queer dry-cleaner.”

The nastiness didn’t seem to faze them much – Mannis went to work as Rogero’s deputy and chief operating officer. Stokes and Tindell carried on their law practices (although Tindell did say he got his feelings hurt enough to go on a diet and lose 60 pounds). Burchett and Daugherty emerged unscathed.

Rogero further demonstrated her bipartisan leanings by hiring Republican Christi Branscom as senior director of public works, and then promoting her to deputy to the mayor/chief operating officer when Mannis went back to the private sector. Branscom now serves in Gov. Bill Lee’s cabinet as Department of General Services commissioner.

Bipartisanship now and then

Tindell believes the increasingly partisan political environment increasingly trickles down from Washington, and he doesn’t approve.

“When I helped Madeline campaign, I gave a lot of money – fed them. I made lots of friends in that that campaign who are the direct opposite of me politically – we’ve lost that.

“To me, the greater story of this election may be that Tennessee’s first gay mayor would be a Republican. That doesn’t fit the national narrative…”

Bipartisan elections and administrations have a long history in Knoxville politics. The city’s longest-serving mayor, Republican Victor Ashe, built a bipartisan coalition, hiring Democrats like Ellen Adcock, Sam Anderson and Tank Strickland. Obviously, he supports nonpartisan elections.

He also thinks endorsements are overrated, and subscribes to the old political maxim that you are more likely to inherit a past candidate’s enemies than their friends.

“Endorsements have brought maybe a third of my friends, and probably all my enemies,” he said.

His old political foe Carlene Malone, who served 10 years on Knoxville City Council, agrees.

“Non-partisan elections free (an officeholder) up to look for talent and harness that talent, and I am very much in favor them, especially at the local level. I think they produce the best results.”

Democrat Bob Booker served as Republican Mayor Kyle Testerman’s administrative assistant during the early ’70s. He had been one of Testerman’s primary opponents for mayor, and was a state legislator at the time. He too is a strong supporter of non-partisan city races.

The bashing of Brooks

Cameron Brooks

Former Knox County Democratic Party chair Cameron Brooks is supporting Mannis over Democrat Indya Kincannon in the non-partisan city election to succeed Rogero, and he’s catching hell from fellow Democrats – including a homophobic paragraph that the publisher of a local website added to an op-ed column denouncing defecting Democrats this week.

Brooks is shaken by the vitriol that’s coming his way and says one high profile candidate is campaigning to deny him a vote in next year’s party convention. But he says he is supporting the better candidate.

“It’s not been an easy decision,” he said. “I’ve been criticized by lot of people in the Democratic Party for stepping out and doing this, but everybody has the right to support who they want to support in a non-partisan race. I’ve seen some real ugliness on the part of some – not all – Democrats.

“Being a member of the gay community, I had known of Eddie Mannis for a long time and knew how much he’s given back – supporting Positively Living (which assists people with AIDS and HIV), supporting public schools, the formation of HonorAir, starting a business from nothing. He is by far the most qualified candidate and I’m proud to call him my friend.”

Municipal elections are non-partisan in most other cities, which doesn’t mean the candidates aren’t partisan – the Encyclopedia of American Politics says mayors of 62 of the 100 largest cities in the country are Democrats. Like Tennessee’s other three large cities, Knoxville is a dot of blue in an increasingly red landscape. Republicans have a stranglehold on county offices, super majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, seven of nine congressional seats, both U.S. Senate seats and the governor’s mansion.

Democrats can hardly be blamed for wanting to press the advantages they have, which are in the cities. Seven of nine city council members here are Democrats (although those numbers may fall some after next week’s election).

But Rogero’s immediate elected predecessors – Haslam, Victor Ashe and Kyle Testerman – were Republicans. You have to go back to Randy Tyree’s election in 1974 and Leonard Rogers in 1965 to find a couple of Democrats, and before that all the way back to John T. O’Connor in 1935.

Knox County has been a Republican stronghold since the Civil War, but until fairly recently, Democrats managed to hold important positions in county government. Tommy Schumpert was county executive from 1994-2002. Mike Padgett was county clerk for decades. Randy Nichols served a long stretch as attorney general, and there were always five or six Democrats on the 19-member county commission. Tank Strickland, a master of bipartisan politics, was elected to chair the commission in 2008, making him the last Democrat to serve in that office, probably ever. Evelyn Gill is the only Democrat left on the county commission and there are no Democratic judges, fee officers or any other kind of countywide officeholders.

Madeline Rogero was once one of those Democratic county commissioners. She learned to work across the aisle to get stuff done. That skill has served her well over her political career.

Hey, Democrats. Be like Madeline. Non-partisan elections work.

Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties. She writes Knox Scene each Friday. Reach her at bbeanster@aol


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